Most of you have to wait until Mardi Gras Day, Super Sunday, Saint Joseph’s Day and Night, Secondline parades and the New Orleans Jazz Festival to experience the beautiful sights and sounds of the New Orleans Black Masking Indians. But year-round, if you are fortunate as those of us who live in New Orleans and are surrounded by native New Orleanians who ensure our treasured culture and tradition survive. With the recent cancellation of Super Sunday and the Secondline, I thought it was a great time to share my experience of growing up in New Orleans witnessed the creation, birth, and celebration of the New Orleans Black Masking Indians. Year after year suits are created depicting a well-thought-out story of each Indian.
There’s a story within the Indian Suit
Black Masking Indians
Some of you may wonder why I call them “Black Masking Indians” instead of Mardi Gras Indians, and here’s why. At one time and by no choice of there own, they were called Mardi Gras Indians to participate in the Mardi Gras festivities. That’s something to talk about all by itself. Have you ever saw a “Mardi Gras Indian” join in a parade? Have you seen a “Mardi Gras Indian” walk the route of the floats or throw beads? I’m sure you will answer NO unless it was in the early 1900 when they snuck in the procession in protest against segregation and to show off their beautiful suits. But years before that, Black New Orleanians developed their own style of celebrating Mardi Gras, and most of the celebrating took place in Congo Square in Treme. The tradition started in honor of native Indians who assisted slaves in escaping the tyranny of slavery and accepted them as their own. Most Black New Orleanians have Native Indian blood running through their veins, because of this. We are all part of some Indian Tribe or Gang in one way or another.
CoronaVirus and Super Sunday
Before I go into my story, let me say this I’m quite sure there will be an impromptu Super Sunday of a smaller scale. The Black Masking Indians and the people of New Orleans will not allow the virus to stop them from paying homage to what may be over a century-long tradition. Urban New Orleans Natives, NOLA locals who genuinely know what it means to love New Orleans. Tourists, and even a few those we refer to as transplants which moved here only to change the black urban neighborhoods, all will be out celebrating our tradition as we always have. Native New Orleanians do not need the permission of the city to celebrate our culture, traditions, our lives. Celebrations of this nature give us the necessary fuel to work mediocre tourism jobs. Coming together in honor of our ancestors supplies our hearts and soul with joy.
On any given day in any New Orleans neighborhood, especially in Black Urban Community. It can be a regular Thursday, and you will see and hear the locals parading in the streets with a full brass band leading the way. The city canceled the roadblocks and the option for us to congregate in the streets, but Super Sunday and St. Joseph’s Day nor St. Joseph’s Night is not canceled as far as it goes with the people. My thinking it will not be as big, Tribes/Gangs will more than likely perform their ceremonies in their own Wards at a park. Possibly, walking to nearby Wards to honor the traditions of Battle of the needle and thread. Part of the tradition and culture involves shall I say showing off their suits, which Black Masking Indian Tribe is the prettiest, meaning the suit is everything from beautifully made, and it has an incredibly creative story. Loyalty to the tradition followed by all of the love and time it took to create the suit must be seen on the streets of New Orleans, especially by other Tribes/Gangs. You will hear Native New Orleanians compliment Indians by saying, “You know you pretty!” followed by the spreading of eagle-like arms and the proud strut of a peacock.
Plus, it’s outdoors! And people are walking around. It’s not like they are boarding a parade float inside of Mardi Gras World, sharing a small space with others. Tribes/Gangs are with each other during ceremonies, and for the most part, they are moving around dancing and singing. They actually take it to the streets. Its a phenomenon everyone in the world should see. If you join in on the celebration, make sure you have your hand sanitizer, give a squeeze to all who want to shake your hand and keep it moving.
I believe if we keep the celebration more like a family reunion or neighborhood block party at the parks in our Wards, it will keep the crowds small and hopefully lessen the risk for exposure. I feel that St. Patrick’s Day celebrations should break up the canceled celebrations in this manner as well. Pack up the green beer, throws and etc. and park a couple floats outside bars and parks or use the floats like a party bus and roll thru the city with a small krewe. There are many options to celebrate our cultures and traditions without the need for a huge grand affair. Scale it down and be safe and be well!
My great-grandfather was an African and Choctaw Indian by way of Mississippi. His name was James Shelton, but we called him “Lil Papa” for two reasons; one he was much shorter than his wife my great grandmother “Alma Shelton” Big Momo and my grandfather whose name was James as well, “James Hollins” was “Big Papa” because he was big and tall. Lil Papa was a short man, maybe 5’6 with smoothest dark chocolate skin, and what I thought was grey-blue eyes then, but now I believe he had cataracts. He was bald for the most part, with the exception of the short wavy hair he covered with dress hat all the time. I loved my papa and treasured the time spent out in Kenner with him and Big Momo out in Kenner. He worked long, long hard hours on the railroad, and even though he was bone-tired, he would sit in his chair after work with us at his feet listening to him chant in his native tongue. He didn’t tell many stories of his life, possibly because he was often on the run from slave catchers, but he taught us about surviving off the land and to appreciate it. Their backyard was mostly a garden, two huge pecan trees, one held a tire swing, a peach tree, a banana tree, a fig tree, and strawberries were free for our picking and eating. We always went home with a bag of goodies from the yard. Oh, they had a small chicken coop. I would find out years later that those cute little chicks I used to pet were possibly my dinner when I visited… We were shown how to spot holes in the ground were the crawfish lived. We would stand over the hole with a string with a piece of fat on it, trying to temp the crawfish to bite. Sometimes I would catch and drop em because I was afraid of them.
My Lil Papa and Big Momo never dressed as Indians or participated in the traditions, possibly because of work and church. It would take for my Mama to take me around relatives and out into the city to experience the cultures in the traditions of the Black Masking Indians.
Love at first sight
My first memory of seeing the Indians was in the late early 80s, I had to be about 7 years old when my Mama would take us to visit family and friends, and more than often, there would be men gathering in a room sewing, drinking, and singing. I would peek behind the beaded curtain with my big brown eyes laid on the colorful rhinestones, gemstones, and feathers. The shiny bling all but called my name. I used to hope one of them would drop anything so that I can claim as mine. Unlike the men, women, and all the girls in my family, I did not take to sewing. I barely know how to sew on hand to this day, but I knew exactly what I would do if I had some bling and scraps of satin material. After a few minutes of eyeballing their supplies, one of the kids would find me and attempt to bust me out. You gonna get in trouble, because I’m going to tell… “Oooh, you looking in the Grownup Room.” Nothing much happened to me, I was a good girl. Plus, I learned early in life that all it takes is for a child to be respectful and inquisitive. Doing so opened so many learning opportunities for me at a young age. Still, quite a few of those tella tell kids actually pulled the beaded curtain open so that I may enter the room to be gifted with leftover scraps and jewels. But I can hear their big mouths now, “Dee, you not supposed to be in the grownup’s business.
I remember seeing the Indians out on Mardi Gras as a young girl, but my first up close and personal experience was the Spring of 1980. We were living in the 17th Ward, Hollygrove, Mid City, or what is now known as Carrollton in the early 80s around. My Mama woke us up and told us to put our slippers and robes on to come outside to see the Indians. I thought she and the other adults partied a little too hard because it was dark out. The sun hadn’t risen yet, but these adults were so excited to see the Indians, and they wanted the children to come along. I didn’t know what was up. I was terrified and had no choice but to listen to my Mama. So, there I sat on the porch with until we were told to “Take to the streets.” It was St. Joseph’s Night, well Day and the Indians were out before the roosters. Days prior classmates spoke tales of Indians running around the city with hatchets to scalp people with good hair so that they could make long braided wigs to wear for ceremonies. I imagined people lying in the streets with their brains showing due to the scalping. For the first time in my life, I was relieved to have short nappy hair. I was a ‘Passover” NO Indian wanted my hair, and I was okay with that. I was a shy child and typically went along with what the adults told me to do, so there I stood on the porch with my Mama, Auntie, Uncle, sister and a few cousins awaiting the sight of the sounds I heard chanting in the wind. My Mama appeared excited and lively, so I found comfort in that, and my fear went away. The Indians appeared, and my eyes lit up as if I saw Santa Claus. My family members flew off the porch and joined in the dancing and singing with the Indians. I was super shy and but I managed to I looked on smiling. I could not understand a word they sung or the meaning of “IKO IKO,” but a sense of pride filled my young heart. The sun finally made its way to give some light to the new day. That’s when the magic happened, my eyes lit up from glimmer of bling that I recognized from the men behind the beaded curtain before it made its way unto the suit creating the most beautiful artwork I ever. The beautiful feathers that stood up, signifying royalty, strength, and freedom waved and bobbed as they pounded their feet unto the ground, and that’s when it hit me. Yes, the culture had pulled me in. I not only danced, but I sang and clapped my hands, becoming one with my people as we celebrate our heritage.
Beads, Feathers, Love, and Tears
Over the years, I would wish I could participate in the tradition, but I have found my place within the culture. I didn’t have a direct legacy to it due to none of the men in my immediate family participating in Masking. I guess I could have joined a gang that my cousins and friends belonged to, but I never was into the Social Club thing, not even in college. My love for the culture was more than enough for me, but I’m blessed to live in a community where men still gather together throughout the week to assist each other with their suits as they fill their bellies with delicious red beans and rice and cold beers.
I grew up with the understanding that “Masking” and the sewing was only done by the men, and I never questioned how the Queen’s and child’s suits were made. Actually, it was always the men I saw gathering to sew, cook, and perform the ceremonies. To this day, well in my circle, the women are a support to the men. Most of the time, when the sewing is being done, or during Indian Practice, the women do their own thing and sometimes help out with sewing. But over the years, I would learn that there are many women who “Kill em dead with the needle and thread.” I have been asked several times if I wanted to Mask, and who knows I just may one day. But for now, I’m content with being an heir of the royal family.
The love and passion for continuing the Black Masking culture run so deep into the souls of those who continue it. I found myself becoming emotional hearing the stories of the Black Masking Indians to this day. I was visiting a friend who was in the final stage of putting his suit together. As we spoke, the look of death came over his face as he searched his packed Indian Suit closet for a picture frame that contains an image of him in the National Geographic Magazine in the late 80s. He told me he did not have his image under “Copyright or Trademark.” It took for someone to tell him that his beautiful pink feathered suit was captured by a professional photographer who he would find was paid thousands. He attempted to sue, but there’s this thing about being in public. Generally, people do not have a reasonable expectation of privacy for anything they do in public, and this was the case for him and others. Needless to say, even though he didn’t get to see a few coins hit his bank account, he felt proud to be in the National Geographic. To add insult to injury, the picture only describes the person as a nameless Mardi Gras Indian. He has gone on to travel all over the world to show off his suits as well.
It was just my luck to have met and spoken with one of the founders of The Black Men of Labor and Black Masking Indian Cultural Gatekeepers Fred Johnson at my neighbor’s house. I was pressured into introducing myself at midnight on Mardi Gras Eve. The men and women I sat in the kitchen with took turns telling me, “The man you need to talk to has been sitting in the living room all evening and you back here whining about an interview and the best person to talk to is him.” Before I had a chance to introduce myself, they basically gave me his resume, and that made me nervous. He ran this, and that spoke to hundreds if not thousands about the culture and interviewed with noted journalists. and here I was “The NOLA Chic” walking into the living room in my lounging attire and a wrapped head sounding straight like a New Orleans girl; “Excuse me, I’m so sorry to bother you, but my friends said you are the man of all things Black New Orleans Culture.” It actually worked lol. Fred is appeared to be a laid back, highly intelligent, well-spoken, passionate man, with beautiful features, traits, and characteristics of a New Orleans Black Indian.
I would find out that he tries his best to makes a visit as many of the Tribes/Gangs the weekend of Mardi Gras to offer support and words of wisdom. He told me that things are in the works to protect the Black Masking Indians, along with some really great facts about the Black Masking culture and history.
The Black Men of Labor is a New Orleans Social and Pleasure Club is made up of black working men who pay homage to the black men who work. The theme of the BMOL is always to keep the traditional music on the streets. Fred Johnson told Off Beat Magazine in New Orleans, “No matter what we do, the theme of the parade is always going to be based on the musicians wearing black and white and playing traditional brass band music.
One being the birth of birth, the Mardi Gras Indian Council, which serves as a base to document, teach about the masking culture, teach the art of sewing and be a place for any and all things tribes might need to remain successful. There’s also the option of trademarking your image, which seems like a bunch of B.S. because of the process. The Indian would have to send in pictures his/her complete suit to the department along with fees before Mardi Gras. It is known that Indians are working on their suits up to the eve of Mardi Gras. And they are all very secretive with their suit before Mardi Gras Day. As I mentioned, I was treated like a spy and was sternly told NOT to post or show anything, not even a bead until after Mardi Gras, and I did. And this goes for anyone outside of their Tribe/Gang even parade dates, times and routes are never published in advance, although they do tend to gather in the same areas every year.
Black Masking along with other Black New Orleans legacies that are affected by Cultural appropriation and gentrification in New Orleans. The very thing that lifts the spirit and solidifies family is used by others to make a dollar off the talent of others. It’s a set up by the tourism and entertainment industry to make big bucks off the blood, love, and suffering of a people. So, it’s doubtful that the Indians can get their images protected within the timeline given. Unlike Mardi Gras Krewes, such as Rex, whose krewes are made up of wealthy white people who are able to tap into sponsors. Black Masking Indians go broke for the love of the culture. It’s also labor-intensive and takes away precious time from their family members and friends.
Copyright is a property right. Under the Federal Copyright Act of 1976, photographs are protected by copyright from the moment of creation. According to the U.S. Copyright Office, the owner of the “work” is generally the photographer or, in certain situations, the employer of the photographer.
Under U.S. law, copyright in a photograph is the property of the person who presses the shutter on the camera — not the person who owns the camera, and not even the person in the photo. http://www.technologylawsource.com › articles › intellectual-property-1 › wh.
Following the Renegades
My move back home allowed me to enter into a sacred space of our Black Masking Indian tradition. I was able to witness the century-long ritual unfold right before my eyes over the past year. I was granted the opportunity to experience it all from the inside, and it was life-changing. But, let me tell you they fed me with a baby spoon, but I was finally was able to sit with the men throughout the year to thread, beads, gemstone, rhinestones, satin, and feathers all come to life, transforming them into a real New Orleans Black Masking Indian. Much hasn’t changed since I was the inquisitive little girl peeking through the beaded curtain, but I saunter in now and let the beads embrace my frame as they thread needles snd sew on beads. Being a grown woman has gifted me with the gift gab with men, and a graceful entrance beats pretending to be a fly on the wall. I learned that it was better to be seen because a fly will eventually get to buzzing in their ears and squatted out the room.
My neighbor, who is also my friend and great-cousin, finally suited up after years of sitting out. Over the year, both designed and made Indian suits for other Indians and participated in the traditional celebrations. Still, it had been nearly a decade since they took to the streets themselves. Providing this service to people left them without a position within a tribe. Therefore, both decided to Masked as “Renegade” not as in renegade as in abandoning the tribe but not identifying as part of an exclusive tribe/gang and accepted by all. This is often done when the Big Chief of the Tribe/Gang has passed away, and they disband for lack of leadership or the effects of gentrification have displaced the members. When I asked my friend if he felt sad about not being apart of a gang, he told me, “Even if I don’t have the whole nine, I still have to go.” All it takes is one strong person to preserve and protect the culture.
This past year I was able to finally fulfilled my childhood wish of filling my hands with the shiny beads, gems, and rhinestones that seemed to hold magic when picked up and sewn on by the men I admired as a child. For some reason, I would pick them up and watch them glitter as let them fall back into their assigned container when they weren’t looking. I ran my hands through soft feathers and tickled a neck or two with its tips. I once placed a long peacock feather in the back of my hair and pretended to be an Indian Girl. They were okay with my playful nature, but all the moment I asked one too many questions I was sent out of the Lion’s Den off to be with the Lioness in the kitchen. Like OMG, the plan was for me to get a story, not play with feathers and beads. Even being in the presence of the men while they were sewing made me feel proud of them.
Field Trip to Mardi Gras World
One of my favorite memories over the past year was going on what I called a “field trips” to the “Bead and Fabric Store.” It put the cherry on top of my experience. I rode in an old school Chevy up the back streets of New Orleans to Jefferson Parish as they all did for years. My friend told me stories about taking this route instead of the highway over the years, because of the Jefferson Parish Police would stop them for no reason, some times trashing their Indian suits and newly brought materials. There’s a store in New Orleans, but more often than not, the Black Masking Indians and Mardi Gras krewes would drive out to family-owned Mardi Gras Store in Metairie due to their vast selection. I felt like I was in the land of Mardi Gras or Throw Me Something, Mister Central! I had any and all things Mardi Gras merchandise right before my eyes. Mardi Gras umbrella’s, sequin hats, garters, bikinis, fleur de Lis earrings, iron-on patches, flashing beads, Moon pies into my cart; there wasn’t anything that Mardi Gras store didn’t carry. The walls and aisles were filled with a full variety of beads, blinged-out crowns, stacks of extravagant fabrics, bins of shiny rhinestones, and more.
Our field trip to the store made me appreciate all the Tribes, Krewes, and Organizations that participate in Mardi Gras and Secondlines. It’s super expensive to participate in these events. The feathers, beads, costumes, throws, and all are all for the love of the culture. To be honest, I became angry thinking about all the beads that end up in our sewer system year after year. These beads not only wreak havoc on the environment, but it’s literally a waste, money down the drain for the city, and the Krewes that brought them.
I’m trying to find the words to describe what Indian Practice is as well as the feeling that will swell up in your heart and soul as the men beat on tambourines and drums, sing/chant and dance. The Indians dance and sing traditional songs as well as drink and eat. Most are held on Sundays up until the Sunday before Mardi Gras Day. Sometimes I would go to Indian Practice with my neighbors at a local bar called First Carol’s with my neighbors, my extended family. Indian Practice is usually held at a neighborhood bar, and for us, that would be First Stop Last Stop or as well call it “Carol’s” the owners’ name. Carol’s is a small bar on the corner of Pauger St and Marias Stknown for strong cheap drinks, even stronger friendships, and the tasty free food she offers during happy hour. We would actually meet up here on Mardi Gras morning along with other Indians Tribes/Gangs.
Happy Mardi Gras
And now that Mardi Gras has come and gone, I can share my Black Masking Indian Experience with all of you. As I mentioned moving back home was a sacrifice and caused me financial difficulty, but I never been happier. I feel complete in my spirit, and hope feels an opportunity away. To love New Orleans, you have to embrace the ugly that comes with it, and for me, that is being broke, but even when I feel down and out, New Orleans finds a way to pick me up. When these days hit, all I have to do is sit on my porch or knock on a neighbor’s door.
For The Culture
I’m proud to know that there are people out there who will stand firm for the black culture and traditions of New Orleans, future generations will know of our legacy and will continue the traditions. As much as of a good time I had heard the stories, most of them were filled with facing racism and oppression, but I found joy in seeing that in 2020 we continue to take to the street. Let me quote my great-cousin “Soup” who told me his Big Chief told him while he worked as long as six months offshore that “No matter what you have to take to the streets Mardi Gras Day.” Soup told me how he established a relationship with the owners of the fabric and bead shops when he was on the boat to ensure that he would receive his supplies while offshore. Now, that’s the true definition of “For The Culture.”
We have to come together like we do on Secondline Sundays and show unity as our ancestors. We need all of The Big Chief’s even those who do not Mask to take to the streets and chant for justice. Let’s take it to the courthouse for our people and all that we contribute to New Orleans. Come on down, Big Chief!!! The gang is waiting for you!!!
Under Da Claiborne Bridge with Black Masking Indians 💜💛💚⚜️🎭
I was brought to tears hearing and seeing this little girl Greet the Queen. The emotions were all in her face and body movements.
We have to at least applaud the families who continue the traditions and cultures of our ancestors. They are not paid or given any incentives for this. People come from all over the world to take pictures and record, some get paid big money for the work and artistry of the Black Masking Indians. Photography is a job, it takes a great eye to capture a moment but seriously in addition to creating an Indian suit they go out and walk the streets all for the love of the culture. At least name their tribe, send a card or something when you make money off their images. ⚜️💯